By Laurie Lichtenstein
Dear Alexander Hamilton (and your alter ego Lin Manuel Miranda):
This letter is long overdue. I have often thought to write, but you know how it is – teaching, raising a family, and trying to get tickets to see Lin’s hit show at an affordable price is time consuming.
Of course it pales in comparison to fighting a Revolution, establishing a new government and financial system, but please don’t judge.
I’m writing now, though, as I couldn’t let another school year end without thanking you for the profound effect you have had on my 7th grade American history class. Your presence can be felt from the early days of September and its promise of a new school year, to sometime around March, when we mourn your passing, wonder what might have been, and turn our attention to manifest destiny.
Alex (may I call you Alex?), in the finale of Lin’s show, you ask a question – one that I begin my school year with:
“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
The answer is middle school girls all over America who, along with my 10-year old son, can sing the lyrics to the entire rap ballad that bears your name, whether or not they have seen the show. I suspect, although they are not as flamboyant about it, that there is more than one boy who has memorized those lyrics.
You’ve lured them into close reading!
Rapping out to Hamilton is not a passive endeavor, Alex. It’s an English teacher’s delight. The students are doing close reading. They dissect and digest each and every line in each and every song. Then they actually listen to my interpretation to see if they missed something or perhaps disagree.
And Social Studies teachers are no less pleased as their pupils are thinking like historians and understanding that history is about relationships, perspective, and gestures small and large. Your story, Alex, of an orphan immigrant is personal, but it is also the story of the birth of a nation and a government.
And while students listen to the words Lin wrote, a bigger picture emerges, because as they see major events like the Revolution and the creation of the Constitution through your eyes, they also see your relationships with other important figures.
The attention you deserve
I hope I do not offend, sir, when I tell you that two short years ago only the most devoted of my 12-year old scholars knew your name. I dutifully listed you as an option for our research project on early American leadership, but you were often ignored in favor of your more famous colleagues – Madison, Jefferson or Washington.
And as Madison admits about you during the number “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” — “he took our country from bankruptcy to prosperity, I hate to admit it but he doesn’t get enough credit for the credit he gave us…”
I feel a twinge of guilt as I listen to this song because up until now I chose to skim your chapter in the curriculum narrative. It is I, the classroom teacher, who gets to tells the story. And with my fascination for Jefferson and Adams, it was once their story that I shared in far more detail.
This lesson, of history’s subjectivity, is an important one for my students. Later in the finale, Eliza, your dear wife, speaks of her accomplishments after your death: “I raise funds in DC for the Washington monument.” “I establish the first private orphanage in New York City.”
History is not only created by grand actions, but by small ones as well. And as I struggle to find places to insert women’s voices before 1900, Eliza reminds us that whether it has been written or not in eras past, women were omnipresent during our nation’s early days.
Behind the scenes
While we study the American Revolution, Alex, we examine your experience closely to understand what happens “behind the scenes” of war. The politics, the complex alliances. Your chronicle, as told by Lin, reveals one of the most dramatic tales of our young nation.
History, after all, is a story, not simply a compilation of events with a cause and effect relationship. It is the children who view history as a drama unfolding who love coming to Social Studies every day – the others simply see it as a class to be tolerated. But through Lin’s brilliance, you have changed this attitude in my now-budding historians.
To be honest, I had no idea that Washington relied on you so much during the war, or that you wanted to be a General and were upset by his appointment of Charles Lee instead of you. And thank Eliza for me, too. She helped my students see the effect that war has on families in “That Would be Enough” when she sings, “I knew you’d fight until the war was won, but you deserve a chance to meet your son.”
It’s heartbreaking, Alex, and I sympathize with you, too, feeling torn between your own ambitions and ideals and your family.
Lessons in character
And your story isn’t limited to your impact on America’s beginnings, either! There are lessons on character education as well. Alex, before Lin rapped you to fame many knew you only as the guy who lost the duel and his life to Aaron Burr. If one doesn’t give it too much thought, one may think you were the weaker of the two.
What Lin creates, though, is a picture far more complex. Both of you are incredibly intelligent and capable. Burr is less rough around the edges than you and at various times suggests that you should tone it down. “While we are talking let me offer you some free advice. Talk less. Smile more.” (“Aaron Burr, Sir”)
But really, we discover that it is your grit, passion and willingness to risk your life that makes you a hero. You told us, early in the first act, that we should “not be shocked when [our] history book mentions (you, as you) will lay down [your] life if it sets us free”. (“My Shot”)
Your behavior stands in stark contrast to Aaron’s, who despite his talent cannot offer our nation what you do. In “Non-Stop” you admit that Burr is the better lawyer and practically beg him to assist you with your defense of the Constitution. “I know I talk too much, I’m abrasive, you’re incredible in court. You’re succinct, persuasive…”
But Aaron lacks your convictions, Alex. You are right when you call him out, ”We studied and we fought and we killed for the notion of a nation we now get to build. For once in your life take a stand with pride. I don’t understand how you stand to the side.”
Without your devotion there would be no Federalist Papers. Certainly not fifty-one of them. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time…” (“Non-Stop”). Without those Federalist Papers there might not be a US Constitution. And without your spirit there would be no bank. So thank you for living the ideal that talent is not enough; one must possess determination and the drive to achieve. Alex, you literally saw no obstacles in your path.
Getting perspective on perspective
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much you helped me reinforce that history is all about perspective. King George and Parliament had a very different take on the whole revolution thing.
My students have traditionally seen the King as an ogre. Big, bad, and crazy. But when King George sings to America, “All alone across the sea when your people say they hate you don’t come crawling back to me,” we get the feeling that he is more of a jilted lover than a despotic ruler. “Remember despite our estrangement I’m your man…”
Everyone is vulnerable. Quite a break up!
So gentlemen, thank you. Each year, as I’ll sprinkle your raps and ballads throughout my curriculum and celebrate my self-created Hamilton Day with my students, I will give you, Alexander Hamilton, the credit you deserve, and pay homage to the way you and Lin have helped infuse excitement and deepen understanding for this generation.
I anticipate in the years to come, that even as tickets to the show become easier to procure, the music and story will entice. And following in your footsteps, as Lin sings, “I am not throwing away my shot” to turn our nation’s history into the greatest story ever told.
7th Grade Teacher
PS: Lin, if you wouldn’t mind getting to work on another show – maybe one on Teddy Roosevelt or Malcolm X – I’d be much obliged. Sooner or later, we have to teach the 20th century!
Laurie Lichtenstein has been teaching 7th and 8th grade English and Social Studies in Westchester County, NY for the better part of two decades. In whatever spare time she can scrounge up, she writes about education and parenting her three children. Her work can be seen in Motherwellmag.com, the Bedford Patch, and The Jewish Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @thriceblessed. Read her other MiddleWeb posts here.